Blog by John Miller

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Ford's nemesis

Seems there's a street gang operating out of the mayor of Toronto's office.

The only good news? Rob Ford appears to be the "brains."

Uncovering his abuse of high office is the highest achievement of a year of intense media scrutiny, culminating in a judge this week releasing hundreds of pages of unprecedented police surveillance of the after-hours behaviour of the mayor of North America's fourth largest city.

Ford was caught consorting -- and drinking himself silly -- with convicted criminals (some of whom he employs), receiving suspicious manilla envelopes slipped into his car at gas stations, spending the time he should be governing skulking around behind schools and peeing in bushes, and denying the existence of a video that the chief of police has now seen and confirms that Ford plays the leading role in.

Ford may claim to be contrite about his "mistakes," as he did on his radio program today (without of course saying what most of those mistakes were). He may say that what goes on in the mayor's office is nobody's business. But his actions and behaviour clearly are everyone's business.

And almost single-handedly responsible for us knowing this is the city's largest newspaper, the Toronto Star, which doggedly chipped away at the story for months after Ford convinced many of his supporters that the paper was waging a political vendetta against him. Seldom in recent memory has a newspaper "owned" a story as thoroughly as the Star owns the Rob Ford expose.

Now that the accuracy of its reporting has been verified by no less an authority than the police chief, it is time for us to express our gratitude that the Star has acted as such a courageous watchdog in the public's interest.

Without its excellent investigative reporting, we would still be speculating whether the mayor's erratic behaviour could be traced to some sort of an addiction, or an unfortunate passive-aggressive personality trait.

Instead, we know that people in his employ appear to be deeply involved in the city's drug culture, that the mayor himself carouses drunkenly at City Hall in the wee hours of the morning, that he refuses to answer questions about his behaviour and even lies about it, and that he may even be obstructing justice.

It's a mark of the Star's influence that all four of the city's major newspapers -- even the Toronto Sun, which has served as the Pravda of Ford Nation -- are now calling for him to step aside.

That's quite an achievement for a news institution that, along with the rest of the mainstream media, has been forced to cut back staff because of declining readership and advertising revenue. Among the first cuts at many papers were senior, enterprise reporting teams.

What sets the Star apart is that it chose to keep its superb investigative unit, headed by Kevin Donovan, largely intact.

It was Donovan, along with city hall reporter Robyn Doolittle, who first reported news of the video in which Ford was seen smoking what appeared to be crack cocaine. And it was Donovan, mentoring a team of other young reporters, who began uncovering the criminal records and suspicious activities of people Ford has hired or spends time with.

What emerged is surely unprecedented in the highest office of any city in North America -- criminal activity, goon squads, evidence of extortion and bribery, lying, and a stunning lack of accountability. That is the real public interest here, not whether Ford has a crack cocaine problem.

This sort of journalism has always been championed by the Star. A good part of its commitment comes from the Honderich family -- the most prominent of the five families that purchased the paper after the death of its founder, Joseph E. Atkinson, in 1948.

The late Beland Honderich spent 52 years at the paper -- the last 22 as president and publisher -- and acted as "the keeper of the Atkinson flame." His interpretation of Atkinson's will, which directed his heirs to maintain the Star as a strong "metropolitan" newspaper, was that it had to do more than cover events. It had to expose injustice and abuse of power, and for that reason he, and his son John who served as publisher from 1994 to 2004 and is now chairman, protected the investigative reporting function of the newsroom from attrition and budget cuts. In fact, John Honderich's commitment to strengthening his investigative team is perhaps his most important contribution.

In Kevin Donovan, a superb reporter and mentor, he has a worthy team leader. Donovan rose to prominence during the first Gulf War when he, along with the Independent's Robert Fisk and a few other journalists, broke away from the carefully managed U.S. military briefings and set off across the desert in rented Toyotas to cover the real war. Since taking over the investigative team, he has led crusades that have won a host of journalistic awards and give the Star the capacity to make the news, not just break it.

But on the Rob Ford story, the Star twinned that with a good old dose of Holy Joe Atkinson, whose credo for covering the news was: "Get it first; sew it up; pursue every detail; and play it big."

Bravo, Toronto Star. Toronto is very much in your debt.

(Disclosure: 27 years ago, as deputy managing editor, I helped decide what news the Star published. If I were still there today, I hope I would do as a fine a job as editor Michael Cooke and his team seem to have done on this story)